Pelican Flyer • April 01, 2021
Desperate to finally pull out those hiking boots from winter storage and hit the trail? Then pack your Ten Essentials and break out the maps! Here are the 18 best hikes in the U.S., from sea to shining sea.
Alaska in itself seems to be one of the last frontiers and with it comes a paradise like no other. Surrounding the Tongass National Forest and the Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska is an abundance of hiking and rugged landscapes. Soaring bald eagles and majestic bears are a common sight in this region as you take in a day hike or thru-hike on one of its 700 miles of trails, winding through anything from open meadows to dark caves (bring your headlamp!). More notable for the region are muskegs, a swamp-like bog you can traverse with a wooden boardwalk.
Still, out of all the scenic places Tongass invites you to wander, one of the best hikes in the U.S. is the Nugget Falls Trail. Fairly easy at only two miles, the Nugget Falls Trail drops you off at a point with incredible waterfall and glacier views. If you experience no other trail in Tongass, this is a must-see!
Heading south from Alaska is Washington state and Mount Rainier National Park. And inside Mount Rainier is the world-famous mountain of the same name, rising 14,410 feet above sea level. This mountain is so high that, from a distance, the peak disappears into the clouds. But don’t worry – you don’t have to be a mountaineer to appreciate all the hiking Rainier has to offer!
Lower along the base of Mt. Rainier is the National Park’s 260 miles of maintained trails. Along any of these trails, you will find magical old-growth forests and rivers running through wide open subalpine meadows. The best trek you’ll find in Mount Rainier National Park, however, is the Burroughs Mountain Trail, granting any visitor jaw-dropping views of the surrounding mountain landscape.
Heading further south along the western region is Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park, with a range of hiking trails suitable for novice and experienced hikers. Choose a two- to seven-mile hike to make an easy day of it, or challenge yourself to more difficult terrains. If you’re a birder or twitcher, get there bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to photograph geese and ducks on the river, staying until the afternoon for the regal blue heron. The Canyon to Rim Loop is a short 3.4-mile roundtrip that begins right at the Welcome Center – you can’t miss it!
A few states over in Montana is Glacier National Park, a destination for many nature lovers. Within the park are a variety of animals – 71 species to be exact – from the tiny pygmy shrew to elk. Surrounding Glacier National Park are also numerous trails, ranging from short, easy day hikes to challenging thru-hikes for avid hikers. The most notable challenging hike is the Grinnell Glacier Trail, an 11.2-mile hike that starts near Babb, Montana. In this region, keep an eye out for grazing bighorn sheep and rams and be mindful of grizzly bears. It might even be wise to carry bear spray.
In California, there is an abundance of trails! And tucked within the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve is the Point Lobos Loop Trail, a 6.7-mile loop that begins near the charming town of Carmel-by-the-Sea. A moderate trail, this hike is well worth the efforts, featuring blooming wildflowers and stunning views of the ocean. If you love the area and have already done the trail a time or two, there’s still lots of year-round activities to make for an enjoyable day or weekend away.
Cali is a large state with more than one awesome hike. Inside the Yosemite National Park is the Half Dome Day Hike, which offers a 14- to 16-mile round trip trail that winds through the California wilderness. However, while “Day Hike” is in the trail name, this is for the experienced, not necessarily hikers simply looking for a good view. With a 4,800-foot elevation, it can take some time to climb. Most hikers can complete the Half Dome Day Hike in about 10 to 12 hours. The most notorious section along this route is the cable ascent where you climb 400 feet of a ladder made of two metal cables.
Off the U.S. mainland is our tropical state of Hawaii, known for its pristine beaches and, of course, volcanoes. Inside the Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, you can experience what it's like to get close to a hot volcano. And along the Halema'uma'u Trail, you will descend 425 feet into a vibrant rainforest, where you will eventually wind up on the floor of the Kilauea Caldera, taking in stunning panoramic ocean views. The trail is a must-do for anyone visiting Hawaii and is only a single mile.
Also in Hawaii is Ha’ena State Park and the Kalalau Trail, which spans 11 miles along the north shores of Kauai from Ke’e Beach to the Kalalau Valley. Unlike the Halema'uma'u Trail, this trail can be extremely dangerous and should be attempted by experienced hikers only. Expect to travel on a graded but unlevel trail through streams and steep hills and cliff sides, winding up at the beaches of Hanakāpīʻai and Kalalau, where you can set up camp. This long hiking trail requires a permit, so plan in advance and pack several meals in your waterproof cooler backpack.
Not far away is Nevada, which is home to the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. In Red Rock Canyon, you’ll discover lots of seemingly easy day hikes – the longest is only six miles! However, many hikers have been fooled! While short, many of these hikes are considered difficult, as you pass through challenging terrain and steep areas. It’s not uncommon to tread one mile each hour on some. Still, if you have it in you, these trails offer lots of desert wildlife like hawks and lizards, as well as landscapes. The most famous being the Petroglyph Wall along the trail of the same name, which hosts an 800-year-old ancient rock art.
Nearby in Arizona is the majestic Grand Canyon, one of the most famous lands in the country. With countless hiking trails abounding, it’s hard to make a choice. But if you do only one, make it the South Rim Trail. An easy hike that allows you to take in scenic vistas along the canyon's edge, the South Rim Trail offers amazing views of the Grand Canyon below, along with the whitewater raging Colorado River.
Outside the Grand Canyon National Park, you will also find the Rocky Mountain National Park, 415 miles of wilderness that are begging to be explored. With lakes and mountains, this park offers gorgeous scenery filled with wildflowers and wildlife. Within the park is also 300 miles of hiking trails, ranging from easy to difficult. One of the more popular trails is the 9.6-mile Mount Ida Trail, which starts at Poudre Lake Trailhead at Milner Pass. This trail fools lots of hikers, as the last 1.2 miles traverses very rugged terrain and asks you to stay aware of your map and coordinates. Many hikers suggest around five hours from start to finish.
Tucked near Boulder, Colorado is Chautauqua Park, where you’ll find the Chautauqua Trail. This 80 acres of parkland has been around for quite some time, since 1989 to be exact, and was bought by Boulder citizens. Around these 80 acres are miles of hiking trails, even some that reach high peaks. However, one of the best hikes in the U.S. is the Chautauqua Trail, a moderate 1.2-mile hike that offers views of wildflower fields, Flatirons and Boulder.
Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah is where you can see the largest collection of unique rock pillars called hoodoos. Caused by forces of erosion, these hoodoos scatter the landscape along the Rim Trail, which extends from Hermits Rest village. An easy day hike, part of the trail is even paved. Besides the Rim Trail, Bryce Canyon offers hiking for all levels, even backpacking options for those looking to get lost in the wilderness.
Another nearby Utah park is Zion National Park, where you'll find the Upper Emerald Pool Trail. Zion itself is notorious for its ginormous sandstone cliffs, made up of layers of pinks, reds and creams, along with its free-standing arches. And along the Upper Emerald Pool Trail, you can see them in all their glory! Make sure to catch a photo or two during sunrise or sunset where the colors are even more vibrant. Take the trail the entire way to see the waterfalls.
Heading east into Maryland is the Billy Goat Trail, a moderate four-mile hike just on the outskirts of the D.C. capitol. Along the Billy Goat Trail, hikers can take in sights of the Potomac River and the Great Falls. Being close to two major cities, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., this is a very popular place to go hiking so be sure to get there early to beat the rush.
Head a little south into the Great Smoky Mountains and you’ll find countless hiking trails for all levels. Most notable is the Charlies Bunion Hike, which meets up with the Appalachian Trail and offers majestic mountain views. Ready to take on more than just one hike? Take part in the “Hike the Smokies” challenge, where you’re rewarded with mileage pins after reaching over 100 miles. But you can start with the famous Charlies Bunion to get in your first 8.1 miles, ending on panoramic views of the Great Smoky Mountains where you can capture a few photos. Just remember to bring along a camera hard case to keep your gear protected.
Not far from the Smokies is Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. With 200,000 acres of protected lands only 75 miles outside the D.C. capital, Shenandoah is an easy paradise escape for city dwellers. Inside the park is 500 miles of hiking trails, but none so famous as the Appalachian Trail. While the entire trail runs 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine, you can still take on a smaller section within Shenandoah.
Speaking of Maine, if you make your way to the tip-top Northeast, you must visit Acadia National Park. With practically endless hiking options, seek out the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, which rewards breathtaking summit views after an easy four-mile hike through wildflowers and craggy cliffs. Maine does experience a fair bit of snow, so make sure to plan a trip to the Bar Harbor and Acadia area somewhere between late spring and summer.
Wherever you live, whether it’s the western coast of California or the craggy cliffs of Maine, there’s sure to be hiking in your area. Even if the trail isn’t listed here as one of the all-time top 18 best hikes in the U.S., you can still get out and explore your own backyard, seeking county parks and recreation sites. You never know – a local hike might end up being your favorite.
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